Folks around the bar.
  • Folks around the bar.
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Nunu's

3537 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest

Oh, no. Closed?

I’m looking at a blank wall here. No windows. Some sign about late-nite dining, but this is early evening.

I mean, what place at seven on a Friday night wouldn’t be rockin’, lights blazing, begging for you to come in? Could it be kaput?

Then I notice this gal circling around me and heading for a kind of fire door. She opens it, and, sounds of a party. Music, people shouting, golden light flooding out.

First thought: Speakeasy, Prohibition. Expect a guy to open a little spyhole to check your credentials.

Outside sign.

“So it is open,” I say.

“Oh, yes,” she says.

“You’d never know if you didn’t open the door,” I say.

She holds the door open.

“Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance,” she says. “Live a little.”

So that’s how I make it to a salmon-colored high-back bar chair here deep inside Nunu’s, one of the venerables when it comes to old-school bars. I know it used to be the morning hang-out for the Portuguese and Italian tuna men, who’d come in for a drink at dawn after a long night’s work hauling giant fighting fish in by pole off the coast.

But looking around tonight, looks more swinging than venerable. This has gotta be one of the hoppingest places I’ve seen in a while. A lot of loud joshing, flirting, and back-and-forth between Doug the bartender and his customers further along the bar, as he pours, shakes, stirs, up-ends brandy bottles, even opening a champagne bottle for a couple who have just announced their engagement.

So, I sit down and suddenly I remember I’ve been here before. Last time, I sat up next to a cowboy at the bar. Really. He was an old guy with a black cowboy hat and cowboy boots that looked like they’d had spurs rubbing against their heels most of their life.

“Tell me,” he said, about 30 seconds into us kinda nodding to each other. “Why don’t cowboys skydive?”

“You got me there, sir.”

“Because it’d scare the hell out of their horses.”

That was it. This guy was a keeper. Still get a picture of those horses freaking out as they floated down. He told me all about his life. Son and grandson of cowboys. Born on the Rancho Santa Margarita y Flores, the huge rancho up in O’side. “I was in the saddle and working by the time I was seven. Never went to school. Never learned to read or write.”

Lord. He joined the Marines when the Rancho gave way to Camp Pendleton. After he got out he became a rodeo clown. He’d been coming to Nunu’s 22 years.

“Name’s James. James Santiago. But everybody calls me Cowboy.”

So yeah. Good vibes.

“What’s it to be, hon?” asks Leighanne, bringing me back to now.

Last time, Santiago and I were on a strict diet of Buds. Time for a change.

“Uh, Arrogant Bastard?”

“No, hon. Best I can do is Stone IPA...uh, hold it a moment.”

She comes back with a bottle of Arrogant Bastard. A small one. “It was just hanging around,” she says.

“No draft?”

“We only do bottles here,” she says.

“I’ll take it,” I say. “Uh, do you have a menu?”

She hands me a list of mainly burgers, salads, and sandwiches. Thing that strikes me: for a cocktail bar, these are pretty reasonable prices. The “Original Char-Grilled Burger (quarter-pounder) is $5.95. The Nunu, the half-pounder, is only 40 cents more.

Arrogant Bastard and Nunu’s basic burger.

They have sandwiches, like the Classic Philly for $6.95, a Philly with Jack Daniel’s whiskey soaking it for $7.75, and a grilled chicken breast salad for $6. And if you’re hard up, they have a small order of house buffalo wings for $3.75. Man, that price can’t have changed for years. Then I see what I really want: Grandpa’s Grilled Cheese Fix. Sourdough (or wheat) bread, 3 pepper jack cheese slices, 5 bacon slices, and sautéed tomatoes with fries, $6.75. And, for a buck more, a couple of eggs. Can just taste those sautéed love apples.

On the other hand, I see how big a bargain that basic burger is, at $5.95. And I like the idea it’s char-grilled.

“Gimme the basic burger,” I say.

“Uh, no,” says Leighanne.

“No?”

“No. For that you have to go round the back. They’re a separate part of the business. Ask for Omar.”

I get around the back of the bar to the little hole in the wall. Omar is here, running between steaming pots and pans and this tiny counter. Wants to know how cooked I want it. “I’ll bring it to you,” he says.

I know...a burger’s a burger, but the char-grill thing is great. Makes it all nubbly and crunchy and salty on the outside. This Arrogant Bastard washes it and the fries down great. It may be a small bottle, but it sure packs punch.

And the check: $10.93.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Next time? Must try their cocktails. This couple to my right say they come up here rather than go downtown. “The cocktails are half up here what you’d pay in the Gaslamp.”

So, do they still open at six for the tunamen? Leighanne shakes her head. “Only on the weekends,” she says. “And not till seven. But we do breakfast. It’s a fun crowd.”

Boy, after this crowd, not sure I could handle it at the crack o’dawn.

  • The Place: Nunu’s Cocktails, late-night kitchen, 3537 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-295-2878
  • Prices: Original char-grilled 1/4lb burger with fries, $5.95; The Nunu (1/2lb), $6.35; Grandpa’s Grilled Cheese Fix (with pepper jack, bacon, sautéed tomatoes, fries), $6.75; house buffalo wings, $6.25 ($3.75 for small order); grilled chicken breast salad, $6
  • Hours: 1:00 p.m. till 2:00 a.m.(Monday through Friday); 7:00 a.m till 2:00 a.m. (Saturday, Sunday) Breakfast (Saturdays and Sundays only), 10:00 a.m. till 2:00 p.m.
  • Buses: 3, 120
  • Nearest bus stops: Fifth Avenue at Brookes Avenue (northbound); 4th Avenue at Brookes Avenue (southbound)
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